There is no question that Pokemon Go has created a unique and heretofore unheard of gaming experience around the world. From New York City to Amsterdam to Rio to Tokyo, the game has launched augmented reality games to the forefront of development and catapulted the notion into mainstream consciousness.
Pokemon Go strikes a nostalgic nerve with those within the “Millenial” generation who grew up with the then global phenomenon of Pokemon in the form of Game Boy titles, cartoons and collectible cards. Now able to bring their childhood games to a new era in a new form, Pokemon Go has destroyed all others on the “Most Downloaded” charts and in just about any other metric currently available.
Proponents of the game cite the social aspects of Pokemon Go by creating opportunities for players to leave their PCs and gaming consoles behind in order to step out into the real world in search of virtual creatures. People have been meeting up in parks, in restaurants, museums – in short, anywhere that a Pokemon might conceivably be lurking, and they can be nearly anywhere. Those who drop a lure, a form of cooperative game play, on a Pokestop can not only attract a plethora of Pokemon, but their hunters as well. Such impromptu gatherings allow players to interact with one another to celebrate rare finds.
Pokemon Go is also touted for its health benefits by making getting out of the house and walking around one’s neighborhood or park a lucrative experience when searching for the erstwhile creatures. More than a few reports have been published that indicate players are losing weight, feeling less depressed and are engaging in more positive social situations than before.
Built on technology originally used for Niantic’s Ingress game, Pokemon Go literally spawns critters anywhere in the world or in one’s home, in a neighbor’s yard, in the middle of a river or in a police station. At least at the onset, it seemed that there was nowhere that was safe from Pokemon. Because of this, a number of situations arose that called into question the appropriateness of foisting an augmented reality game on an unsuspecting world. Granted, Ingress had been a live game for a number of years. However, even on its best day, it never reached the astonishing level of success that PG has in only a matter of weeks. Not only has Pokemon Go reached an unprecedented number of players and generated vast amounts of income ($200M in its first month alone), it has reached unparalleled levels of exposure in so-called mainstream media thereby exposing people to the game who might never have heard of it before.
That level of exposure isn’t limited to the nightly news or the front page of a drugstore magazine. People have witnessed the game’s players wandering their neighborhoods, excitedly crowing over a rare catch at the grocery store or by having traffic come to a standstill in New York’s Central Park when players abandoned cars in the middle of the road to try to catch one of the pocket monsters, joining a huge crowd thundering through the park on the same quest.
Here, then, arrives the crux of the issue: What are the social responsibilities of the players as they walk through the world looking for virtual monsters? Where is the line between pursuit of the game and the rights of the larger non-gaming population? In short, there isn’t one yet because Pokemon Go, with its augmented reality taking computer / electronic gaming from one’s home into “real life”, is blazing a new trail and boldly going where no game has gone before.
While there are many positive aspects embedded in Pokemon Go – and there ARE many – there are also some troubling parts as well. One unsuspecting homeowner had a PokeGym on his house. Other players have been found in cemeteries walking across graves or disturbing ceremonies and visitors, so much so that at least one city is banning players from cemeteries or risk facing up to a $1,000 fine or six months in jail. Arlington National Cemetery, the US Holocaust Museum, the Hiroshima Atomic Bomb Memorial and the Cambodian Genocide Museum (to name a few) have all requested Pokemon Go players to stop the hunt when on the grounds or have been outright banned from playing while on location. Many sensitive cultural locations have recently asked to have their locations removed from Pokemon Go. Niantic has indicated that it is working on a simplified method for people and places to “opt out” of game play.
Then there are the more sensational stories of unsuspecting players finding bodies, players being mugged, and, most tragically, a young man being murdered while playing Pokemon Go. This is not to assign blame to the game for these activities, but to illustrate the point that players are venturing forth across cities and town in new ways that can potentially place them in places where they might not ordinarily have been before.
The game itself is blameless to a large degree, though one could certainly argue that locations of cultural sensitivity should have been automatically removed from the application from the get-go, but this new way of experiencing games is fundamentally changing the rules for all newcomers in the next generation of AR games. Like it or not, Pokemon Go is, and will remain, under a microscope and will be a major influence on all future AR development. Studios and publishers will need to adopt new ways to both allow an expansive experience for their players and to simultaneously restrict the impact of gamers’ activities on the larger non-gaming population.
According to an interview with Niantic’s Consumer Marketing Director J.C. Smith, “When something is really popular, we have to figure out the most respectful way to deal with it and make sure that everyone is playing safely and doing things in a respectful manner.”
Herein, and acknowledged by the developers, is the issue: How to keep players safe and how to keep them respectful. Obviously, this is not something that Niantic can regulate. It is out of their realm of influence to, for instance, warn players they’re heading into a potentially harmful situation since there is no way to predict these things. It is similarly out of the company’s hands if someone chooses to use the application as a tool for criminal activity.
What we are left with then is personal responsibility and sensitivity to a world that, for the most part, does not understand games or gamers. Yet for all the cultural divide, it is falls to the gaming community to comport itself with respect and decorum. Doing so leads to many more advantages than disadvantages.
For Niantic, however, it may be too late for a huge turn around in player behavior that has plucked a nerve in the non-gaming community. At least one New Jersey man has filed a lawsuit alleging that his personal property rights are being violated by individuals searching for Pokemon. Whether or not the case has merit, it will still set a precedent that others, who perhaps have a more compelling case to take to court, will be watching. His case is doubtless only the first of many regardless of whether we, the gaming community, believes it to be a correct allegation or not. Every lawsuit sets a standard for the next augmented reality game that comes out. Every case sucks money out of development (though, arguably, there is a lot of cash in Niantic’s coffers at the moment). Every suit paints an unflattering portrait of gamers and their impact on the outside world. Cooped up in a house in front of a screen, gamers are considered safe, if mocked for being nerds. Crawling through the streets of a city in the wee hours of the night, clogging up thoroughfares or parks, gamers are thrust in the faces of those who are sometimes hostile to their presence.
So in the end, we’re all writing the user manual on augmented reality for the future, a ruleset that needs to transcend the much too vague “use personal responsibility” mantra. What suggestions to you have to be a respectful and safe gamer?